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Committed To Failing

by David Brock on March 4th, 2020

We have very confused attitudes and beliefs about failure and failing. In sales and marketing, specifically, this confusion is somewhat ironic, since failure is such a large part of what we do.

Recently I wrote about a terribly dangerous view about failure: “Making It Safe To Fail, Hogwash!” There’s a lot of social pscho-babble on failure, the thinking parallels the thinking that, “everyone gets a trophy, win, lose, just show up….., it’s the effort that counts!” I, also, suggested a different perspective in, “Making It Safe To Succeed.”

This post will, for the time being, wrap up my temper tantrum on our misguided concepts around failure.

Somehow, there is the concept, “fail fast, fail often.” And there are the usual examples of the thousands of experiments Thomas Edison performed to invent the light bulb, or one’s favorite unicorn CEO and the number of failures that individual had prior to hitting it big.

Yet, none of the people cited as outstanding failures ever set out to fail. I’m certain, Edison would have been delighted if his first, 100th, 500th attempt at creating the light bulb succeeded. Just as, all the others would have been equally happy, if they had succeeded sooner.

The point we miss about failure is these people were committed to succeeding and to doing what it took to succeed. They learned from their failures (and successes), they had the resilience to keep going. Most importantly, they accepted the risks and consequences that accompany failures–even to the point of losing everything. They had a high sense of personal accountability for what they did.

That’s what we miss about failure, we are accountable for the outcomes we produce. There are risks to everything, there are consequences to everything. If we are unprepared to accept the accountability, manage the risks and understand/accept the consequences, we will never be prepared for success or to do the work that being successful requires.

The pundits would say, “we have to learn from failures.” The phrase is great for office posters and coffee cups, the reality is far different. Most of the time, we don’t learn from failure. We don’t take the time to understand, analyze, and develop corrective strategies. We persist in doing the same things over and over, at every greater volumes and velocity.

Our marketing/demand gen/prospecting programs aren’t producing the results we want. Rather than trying to understand why they are failing and improving them, we just do more—because it’s easier. We don’t have to do the hard work of understanding what our customers and prospects are interested in. The incremental cost of doing more is virtually zero, so we choose to fail more, rather than learning and improving.

We see declining performance in percent of people making quota. Rather than analyzing this, understanding what’s happening, taking corrective action, we either do more, or blame it on the individuals-firing them. We churn through people, seeking to produce the results we want, rather than understanding what’s going wrong and correcting it.

50+ percent of sales people not making goal is not a failure of individuals, it’s a failure of management. Yet we seldom take the time to understand this and correct it–giving our people and organizations a chance to succeed.

We see customers, increasingly, looking to learn from other sources. Customers say sales people aren’t useful or helpful. Rather than talking to our customers, learning what they find creates greatest value, and reorienting our engagement strategies to help our customers make sense of the challenges they face, we focus on our own goals/objectives and what is most efficient for us. We continue to blanket customers with approaches that make sense to us, but are not helpful to the customer.

Perhaps subconsciously, we fail to accept the responsibility/accountability for the decisions we make/don’t make. It’s all to easy to say, “We don’t have the right people, we don’t have the right tools, we don’t have the right products, we don’t have the right pricing….” We rely on excuses, not learning and improving.

We fail to learn from failure because we don’t want to do the work or accept the accountability for the results we produce. Learning from failure is hard work. It requires thoughtfulness, humility, personal honesty, accountability, and resilience.

While this is, perhaps, a dark view of the world, I wonder if we really are committed to success. We don’t seem to be doing the things that consistently drive success.

What do you think?

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  1. Joel Lyles permalink

    Hi Dave,

    To my perception, the reason why people are committed to failing comes from two root causes:

    1) Failure is rarely 100% or even 50%. Four sales reps out of eight who one year that failed to meet quota highlights some systemic failure. However, it’s also likely that these four sales reps didn’t completely fail. One of them only made 50%, but the others made 70%, 85%, and 95% of quota with the last one being able to make it if they had two more weeks.

    2) Because of #1, failing conventionally is much less risky so long as you meet a certain threshold. From a profitability perspective, an inside sales manager who takes nine months to find the best person is probably doing their company better long-term than an inside sales manager who immediately hires a warm body who then only gets 70% of quota. However, that first manager is much more on the hook for their results than the latter. Why? Because the first kind of failure is unconventional, the second kind of failure is conventional.

    Combining 1 and 2 leads to what we see in sales. Scaling from 10,000 e-mails to 30,000 e-mails won’t get you three times the results, but it probably won’t get you fewer results. So long as the marketing team didn’t get appreciably worse results, no one is going to yell at them for tripling the volume but only getting 5% more responses. Same for scaling to 30,000 to 300,000. Or the shorter sales tenures. That sales rep might have left the organization after 14 months, but they did make 120% of quota and there’s plenty of other candidates with similar profiles. The next one just gets 95% of quota after 9 months, but hey, just got to try again.

    You repeat this process over and over and… well, you get what you see.

    What do you think?

    • Joel: First, sorry for the slow reply. Second, it’s such a pleasure to see you commenting again, it’s been a while.

      I understand what you are saying. It is how we rationalize our systemic failures–but it doesn’t orient us to answering, “How do we succeed?” Part of that answer is looking at why we fail and eliminating those. So while scaling from 10K to 30K emails doesn’t produce 3 times the results, doing so avoids understanding the problem, addressing it in a more effective way.

  2. Joel Lyles permalink

    Sorry to double-comment without a response, but, this passage from John Gall’s Systemantics explains my logic of #1 and #2.

    “But although men build systems almost instinctively, they do not lightly turn their ingenuity to the study of How Systems Work. That branch of knowledge is not congenial to man; it goes against the grain. Goal-oriented man, the upright ape with the spear, is interested in the end-result. If the spear flies wide of the mark, man is equally likely to trample it to bit in a rage or to blame the erratic flight on malevolent spirits. He is much less likely to undertake a critical analysis of hand-propelled missiles, and infinitely less likely to ponder the austere abstractions
    presented in this book.”

    Going back to your Edison analogy in another post, once he perfected the incandescent lightbulb few people cared to ask why it took him 500 tries. Even fewer people care to ask why Edison set up his experiments the way that he did, or why he stopped at ‘success’ 501.

    That might be the root cause of failure: goal-oriented interest towards the end result and disinterest towards the process. Which leads to inexorable decay when the failure, like it so often is, is partial or even minute compared to catastrophic. When the Prince of Wales Battleship met its ignominious end with the new paradigm of naval combat, man adjusted quickly and swiftly. But no one systemically questioned the decades of groupthink and blundering that led to launching that ship without carrier cover until, what, Vietnam? Far as I know the British (and worldwide) militaries just wagged their fingers and blamed it on some bad militaries.

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